1 John 5:1-4: Faith, Love, & the Family of God

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The reason that God’s commandments are not burdensome is that Jesus has fulfilled them.

Children look like their birth parents. “He has his daddy’s eyes.” “She has her mommy’s ears.” When I compare my baby pictures with those of my 3-month-old, the resemblances are uncanny. As kids grow older, the similarities become more pronounced, moving from simple outward appearance to words and actions. Our vocal intonations, the way we walk and carry ourselves, our build, our posture, our smiles, how we interact with others—all of these serve as indicators of our family of origin. We are the way we are less by personal choice and more by virtue of the traits we inherit. You can always tell a Smith, an Anderson, or a Larson at a glance because they are born with a particular set of DNA. The same is true spiritually. For those born (or rather born again) into the family of God, we too bear a striking resemblance to our Heavenly Father.

Chapter 5 of John’s epistle opens like this: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:1-3).

Obedience isn't the entrance fee we pay to get into the family of God.

According to John, entrance into God’s family comes by faith alone. Yet, this faith is never truly alone since it always results in love and obedience. Unlike the apostle Paul, who was at pains to distinguish sharply between saving faith itself and the good works that result from it, for John faith and love are so tightly connected that he can’t speak of one without implying the other. This by no means blurs the lines between the two, but it does highlight one particular strand of our spiritual DNA: Those born into God’s family obey God and love their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. As we have already heard, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

There’s an important caveat here, however: Obedience isn't the entrance fee we pay to get into the family of God. John has already shown that our spiritual heritage is a product of God's great love in Christ and not our own efforts (3:1). Notice also the lack of an imperative in verse three. The translation is not “For this is the love of God, that we OUGHT to keep his commandments," but rather "This is the love of God, that we KEEP his commandments.” Can you see the difference? It’s promissory in nature. We aren’t able to birth ourselves spiritually by demonstrating the requisite amount of love. To be born of God is passive, grammatically and theologically. We cannot bring about our own spiritual birth any more than a newborn can deliver itself. We need someone else to do it for us, outside ourselves or extra nos.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this passage, however, is John’s audacious claim at the end of verse 3: “And his commandments are not burdensome.” God’s commandments are not burdensome. As a self-confessed, card-carry Lutheran I must admit that John is making me a bit nervous. How can this be? Isn’t the law a schoolmaster (Gal 3:25)? Doesn’t the law bring knowledge of sin (Rom 3:25)? Doesn’t the very commandment which promised life prove to be death (Rom 7:10)? How can it be that–for the Christian–God’s commandments are not burdensome, nor are they too severe, nor are they a source of great difficulty or trouble?

In his commentary on 1st John, R.C.H. Lenski re-frames the question in this way, and in so doing he provides a key insight: “Is it a burden to believe in the Son of God who died in expiation of our sins? Is it a burden to be called one of God’s children?” [1] The reason that the law is not burdensome isn’t that its demands have lessened. It’s also not that Christians have been injected with some kind of spiritual super-soldier serum which enables us to perfectly obey. And it’s certainly not that our affections are so reversed that we now happily do God’s will with a jaunt in our step. No. The reason that God’s commandments are not burdensome is that Jesus has fulfilled them.

Whenever we read commandments–any place where God’s Word says “do this” or “do not do this” or “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not”–we should place a mental check mark at the end of that Bible verse to remind ourselves that its requirement has already been met. The law has already been fulfilled, fully and completely. Because of Jesus and his perfect obedience, there is no such thing as an unfulfilled command in all of Scripture. The demands of the law were high, but the sacrifice of God’s one and only Son was higher still, as Martin Luther notes: “The severity of the Law was so great that it drove Christ to the Cross.” [2]

John wraps up this section of his letter with verse 4: “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith.” In the end, faith wins, triumphing over all other warring factions both in our own hearts and in the world around us. The moment we are born and delivered in the birthing room of God’s family, we are already victors. The great cry “it is finished” is the new watermark which overlays every page of our lives.

So, dear brother and sister in Christ, take heart. You are a beloved child of your Heavenly Father, forgiven and free. And that means you too have overcome.

[1] Lenski, R. C. H. [Richard Charles Henry]. The Interpretation of Peter, John, & Jude, 520-521. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961.

[2] AE 30: 309